The era of big-money, anonymously financed attack ads has arrived in Connecticut with commercials accusing two Democratic congressmen of providing free health care to illegal immigrants and Viagra to sex offenders.

U.S. Rep. Christopher Murphy, D-5th District, one of the targets of the ads, immediately linked his new tormentor, the American Action Network, to a Who’s Who of Republicans prominent in the George W. Bush administration.

But the group, while it does share office space and a telephone system in Washington with an organization run by Bush advisor Karl Rove, has roots that go farther back, to the re-election campaign of Richard Nixon in 1972.

The American Action Network’s founder is Fred Malek, a high-ranking official in the Nixon White House and re-election campaign, whose excesses led to post-Watergate reforms requiring transparency in campaign finance.

(Malek also was a figure in an investment scandal involving former Connecticut treasurer Paul Silvester.)

This year, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision has allowed corporations to directly underwrite political ads, anonymously if they choose to work through groups such as Malek’s American Action Network.

A spokesman for Malek’s group declined to discuss how much money it will spend in Connecticut against Murphy and its second target, U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District. But Murphy’s campaign says information publicly available from TV stations indicates the initial buy against him is $800,000.

“This is one of the biggest TV buys this district has ever seen. And what we deserve to know is who is standing behind it,” Murphy said. “I want to know. I think that’s what the voters want as well.”

Murphy is among the Democrats nationally who are trying to use the anonymously financed attack ads to their benefit, drawing public attention to Republican efforts to block disclosure requirements that the Supreme Court encouraged but did not require in Citizens United.

“These ads on TV right now, fronted by a shadowy, anonymous group of billionaire donors and multi-national corporations are a clear sign of what the difference is in this election,” Murphy said.

James Landry, a spokesman for the American Action Network, declined to discuss the appropriateness of anonymously financed attack ads.

“What we do is we comply with the letter of the law. That’s all we have to offer about that,” Landry said.

Murphy seemed relieved by what he called the ad’s over-the-top content and “creepy” tone, saying he thought it might provoke a backlash against Republicans, as did negative ads used against him in 2006.

“The notion I support giving Viagra to sex offenders is laughable,” Murphy said.

The ad says Murphy and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi “rammed through government health care. Without congress reading all the details.” It asserts that the bill provides “free health-care for illegal immigrants” and “even Viagra for convicted sex offenders.”

An identical ad against U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, was posted on YouTube over the weekend and will go on the air, Landry said. The Himes campaign said Sunday they have not yet seen the group reserve air time for the spot.

The Murphy and Himes ads include one claim that is false and another that is misleading.

Non-partisan analysts such as Politifact have debunked previous claims about free care for illegal immigrants. And nowhere in the law is mentioned Viagra for sex offenders.

The basis for the Viagra claim, which has been used against others who voted for the health-care bill, is a provision requiring states by 2014 to create exchanges in which in which residents can buy insurance from a choice of four plans that must meet minimum standards, though benefits may differ.

So, does that mean Viagra for sex offenders? Hypothetically, it could, as the law does not prohibit sex offenders – or any former inmate, for that matter – from enrolling in a health plan that could provide a range of prescription benefits.

Republican Congressional candidate Sam Caligiuri, who succeeded Murphy in the state Senate when Murphy ran for Congress, said the ad is hard-hitting, but he is not offended by its content.

“My staff says it’s all verifiable,” he said.

Besides, Caligiuri said, Murphy has aired ads against him that “stretch the truth and border on lies.” One ad blames Caligiuri, a former Waterbury alderman who briefly was acting mayor, for the city’s financial collapse. Another tries to link him to Phil Giordano, the disgraced former mayor.

“I don’t go up to have a press conference to whine about it,” he said.

Murphy called on Caligiuri to demand that the American Action Network disclose its finances – or pull the ad.

“It used to be that Republicans and Democrats, when it came campaign finance reform, at least agreed that sunlight was a good thing,” Murphy said.

Caligiuri refuses to support a federal disclosure bill that passed the House but was blocked by Republicans in the Senate. He said he generally favors transparency, but was troubled by other provisions.

The bill would require most groups behind independent ads to disclose their top donors. It also barred major government contractors and companies that received bailout funds from underwriting ads.

Would they each support a stripped-down bill focusing only on disclosure?

Each hedged, to a degree.

“I would have to see how it’s written, but I’d be open to that,” Caliguiri said.

Murphy refused to directly answer, saying that Republicans like Caligiuri were looking for a pretext to oppose transparency requirements that might shed light on GOP donors.

“I think this is a classic tactic,” Murphy said. “‘If you change the bill, then we’ll support it.’”

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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